N.J. county Democrat Party Chairman resigns following bribery and corruption charges

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Joseph Spicuzzo, a 30-year veteran of the county sheriff’s office and head of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, turned himself in to law enforcement officials on Monday on charges of bribery and official misconduct.

While serving as County Sheriff, Spicuzzo, 65, allegedly demanded payments from individuals seeking appointments as sheriff’s investigators or for promotions within the department. Prosecutors said that Spicuzzo charged up to $25,000 per person and received at least $50,000 in total between 2007 and 2009. Those who refused to pay his demands were reportedly passed over for promotion.

Attorney General Paula Dow said that at least three investigators paid a “cash tribute” to Spicuzzo for their jobs. All are still employed, and prosecutors said they are not being targeted in the investigation.

In Dec. 2009, Gov. Chris Christie singled out Spicuzzo, a former Gov. John Corzine appointee to the Sports and Exposition Authority as “probably the most unqualified candidate for the Sports Authority you can find.”

The state Democratic Party Chairman, John Wisniewski, said “While Joe is entitled, under our constitution, to the presumption of innocence, for the good of his family, our system of government and the Democratic party, he ought to consider stepping aside from his roles as a Commissioner of the Sports & Exposition Authority and chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization.”

If convicted, Spicuzzo faces up to ten years in prison, and could lose his pension.

Star-Ledger

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17 Baltimore police officers arrested in extortion scheme

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On Wednesday morning, 15 Baltimore police officers were ordered to report to its training academy for a routine equipment check. After they arrived, they were confronted by police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld and FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard McFeely, who took their badges before arresting them.


The 15 officers, and two others who were on vacation, were charged in an extortion scheme in which they were paid a $300 kickback each for vehicles involved in accidents, that the police officers arranged to have towed to an Rosedale repair shop. One of the officers received a total of $14,400 over a two-year period.

The towing company and repair shop, Majjestic Auto Repair, owned by brothers Edwin Javier Mejia, 27, and Hernan Alexis Moreno Mejia, 30, recruited police officers beginning in January 2009 who would call the shop from an accident scene to arrange towing, repairs and car rentals.

Some of the cars towed by the shop were not disabled, but police officers convinced owners that Majestic should tow the cars, presumably to collect additional monies from insurance companies.

“The criminal complaint alleges that the officers were secretly working for a private auto repair business when they were supposed to be working for the police department and the citizens of Baltimore,” said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement. “Police officers cross a bright line when they take payments from private citizens in connection with their official duties.”

The police officers charged in the scheme included Eddy Arias, age 39, of Catonsville; Eric Ivan Ayala Olivera, age 35, of Edgewood; Rodney Cintron, age 31, of Middle River; Jhonn S. Corona, age 32, of Rosedale; Michael Lee Cross, age 28, of Reisterstown; Jerry Edward Diggs, Jr., age 24, of Baltimore; Rafael Concepcion Feliciano Jr., age 30, of Baltimore; Jaime Luis Lugo Rivera, age 35, of Aberdeen; Kelvin Quade Manrich, age 41, of Gwynn Oak; Luis Nunez, age 33, of Baltimore; Samuel Ocasio, age 35, of Edgewood; David Reeping, age 41, of Baltimore; Jermaine Rice, age 28, of Owings Mills; Leonel Rodriguez Torres, age 31, of Edgewood; Marcos Fernando Urena, age 33, of Baltimore; Osvaldo Valentine, age 38, of Edgewood; and Henry Yambo, age 28, of Reisterstown.

The FBI said the investigation began within the police department and involved the use of wiretaps and electronic surveillance.

All the officers were suspended without pay, and could face up to 20 years behind bars.

Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake released a statement which read “I expect all City employees to serve the public with the highest level of integrity, and I will not tolerate criminal or unethical activity by any city employee. I appreciate the efforts of Commissioner Bealefeld and our federal partners for working closely together to investigate, arrest, and prosecute these individuals. Any criminal activity by a Baltimore police officer dishonors our city and the 3,000 men and women of the Baltimore Police Department who serve with great professionalism and integrity.”

Read the court documents here.

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California drug chief arrested for drug dealing, extortion

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The commander of the Contra Costa County drug task force and a high-profile private investigator are facing charges on over 25 felony offenses, including selling drugs and other criminal offenses.

The Contra Costa Times reports that Norman Wielsch, 49, commander of the state Department of Justice’s Central Contra Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team, or CNET, and Christopher Butler, 49, the owner of Concord-based Butler and Associates Private Investigations, were arrested Wednesday by federal agents and booked into Martinez County Jail.

The investigation of the two men began in January, and uncovered evidence on possessing, transporting and selling marijuana, methamphetamines and steroids, and embezzlement, second-degree burglary and conspiracy.

Wielsch is the top law enforcement officer of CNET, a drug task force made up of officers from police agencies throughout the county. In his position, Wielsch oversaw thousands of drug investigations in Contra Costa County. He has been with the drug enforcement agency for 12 years.

Butler’s private investigation firm received national attention last year after employing mothers as investigators for their strengths in intuition and persuasion. He was planning a reality TV series called “PI Moms”, according to his firm’s website.

Wielsch and Butler were put under investigation after Department of Justice agents received a tip on the alleged drug activities.

Contra Costa Times

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Prison guards said to be source of cell phone smuggling for inmates

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Once again, the second time in the last two years, convicted killer Charles Manson was found to have a cell phone in his prison cell. The likely source: smuggled in by a prison guard.

Prison spokesman Terry Thorton told the Los Angeles Times the incident occurred on Jan. 6, although no other information about it was disclosed. Thorton said that over 10,000 phones were confiscated from prisoners last year – up from 1,700 in 2007.

The possession of cell phones by prisoners in California and throughout the country is a quickly growing problem, one that shows no sign of slowing. Officials say that the phones are used in drug operations, to organize protests and work stoppages and other banned activities.

Last year, legislative analysts with the state of California that investigated the problem, said the main source of the illegal phones was prison employees, half of which are unionized prison guards. Employees can freely bring phones or other contraband into prison facilities because they do not have to pass through metal detectors, like visitors or others.

So far, the main obstacle for requiring prison guards to go through the metal detectors, like everyone else, seems to be the added cost to taxpayers. Because union rules require that guards must be paid for “walk time” – the time it takes for them to get from the main gate to their work area – having them stop, remove their steel-toed boots, equipment belts and other metal objects, would be costly.

Prison officials say that the additional compensation for union employees would be several million dollars of additional pay each year throughout the system.

For over three years, state Sen. Alex Padilla has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation that would make it a crime to smuggle cell phones into prisons.

“Everybody coming into the state Capitol building has to go through a metal detector…. You even get searched when you go to a Lakers game,” said Padilla, who for three years has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to crack down on the contraband phones. “Why don’t we have that requirement at correctional facilities, of all places?”

Current laws do not exist that prohibit smuggling in the phones, although having them behind bars violates prison rules. A corrections officer, who made $150,000 in a year selling phones to inmates at $1,000 each, was fired but not prosecuted because no law was broken.

Padilla is now suggesting legislation that would charge a fine of $5,000 on anyone trying to smuggle a phone to an inmate. Padilla’s earlier bills included screening all prison employees, but that provision was dropped after union representatives raised the salary issue.

Los Angeles Times

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Bloomberg proposes changes to NYC pension system to save city from financial disaster

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New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a proposal on Wednesday that would end some of the city’s most generous pension provisions for its workers and save billions of dollars in the process. He said unless there is aggressive pension reform, the current system will soon bankrupt the city.

Bloomberg, who until recently, was considered an ally of the unions, is now in the position of drawing their ire.

Vowing to save the city from bankruptcy, NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed controversial pension reform.

Some of the proposed changes include mandatory 10 years of employment before new hires are eligible for benefits– double the current number of years, and require them to be at least 65 years old before receiving benefits. Currently, workers can begin drawing benefits as early as age 57, and many cops and fire fighters receive full benefits after 20 years, no matter how old they are.

Another proposed change would prevent employees from being able to use overtime wages in determining the base for their retirement pay, a controversial and widespread abuse known as “pension spiking.” City managers routinely allow retiring workers to load up on overtime in their final year before retirement, often increasing their pension payments by over 50 percent.

All new city employees would be required to pay more of their own monies into their retirement accounts, and some existing employees, mostly police and firefighters would lose some existing benefits, namely a $12,000 annual stipend they receive in addition to their regular pension.

“This reflects the dire fiscal circumstances the city faces, the devastating impact of increasing pension costs and the desperate need for aggressive reforms,” said Marc La Vorgna, a mayoral spokesman told the New York Times.

The current move is an about-face for Bloomberg, who in the past has used generous pension benefits as a way to keep the city’s 300,000 workers happy and prevent them from striking at times of contract negotiations. As recently as 2008, Bloomberg helped push through a new teachers union contract that included a pension provision allowing them to retire five years earlier than before, with full retirement benefits.

Later that same year, as the financial crisis was in full swing and wages were stagnant throughout the country, Bloomberg gave the city’s largest municipal union back-to-back 4 percent raises, without any concessions on pension benefits.

If successful, the changes could immediately save the city at least $200 million per year, although far larger savings, in the billions of dollars would be further down the road.

One union official, angry over the proposals, called Bloomberg a “dictator.” Harry Nespoli, chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella group of unions, said that Bloomberg had “has set back labor relations 40 years.” Nespoli added “We’re fed up with this. He’s going to have a battle. We’re just not going to roll over.”

Teachers union chief, Michael Mulgrew, called the mayor “insane,” and said that Bloomberg “has just decided, I’m going to attack, attack, attack everybody.”

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FBI said to have committed 40,000 violations of privacy laws since 2001

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The San-Francisco watchdog-group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, released a report today saying it has discovered “indications that the FBI may have committed upwards of 40,000 possible intelligence violations in the 9 years since 9/11.”

The documents suggests, “that FBI intelligence investigations have compromised the civil liberties of American citizens far more frequently, and to a greater extent, than was previously assumed.” The report said that there was no indication whether anyone was disciplined for the violations.

The documents were provided by various agencies to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, and reported nearly 800 violations of privacy laws. The EFF took the data from records it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The records were received from a number of agencies, but most were censored, making it difficult to evaluate them. The FB records were most intact, although names, exact dates and other identifying information had been obscured.

The report said that on average, a delay of 2 ½ years passed between the occurrence of a violation, and its reporting to the IOB.

Valerie Caproni, the FBI’s general counsel, told the Los Angeles Times, the violations were mostly technical or procedural, although many involved far more serious infractions, including “lying in declarations to the court, using improper evidence to obtain grand jury subpoenas, and accessing password-protected files without a warrant.”

Caproni offered that “the number of substantive violations someone’s rights is very small and we take them very seriously.” She added “Am I confident that, by and large, 99.9 percent of the time our agents are acting in compliance with the Constitution, the statutes, executive orders and FBI and DOJ policies on civil liberties? I am.”

Mark Rumold, the EFF lawyer who obtained the documents said “These guidelines were put in place to prevent civil rights abuses. And when the FBI is glibly treating violations as technical mistakes, it’s indicative of a broader problem — the FBI’s attitude toward dedicated, effective oversight.”

Most of the violations took place during the George W. Bush administration, the period covered by the investigation.

However, Rumold also took aim at the Obama administration. He said the president declared repeatedly that he would run a more transparent White House, “but when it comes to national security and intelligence investigations, that just hasn’t been the case.” The Obama administration has refused to say whether anyone is currently serving on the oversight board, which was formed in 1976 to monitor the collection intelligence data.

Access the EFF report here

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Mass. Attorney General to up focus on public corruption

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Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced Wednesday she is creating a task force to focus on public corruption that has permeated the state’s political establishment.

Coakley says she intends to focus more on corruption in government by reorganizing her department.

The Democrat told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce she will split an existing fraud and corruption unit in her office and refocus its workers. One new unit will focus on financial crimes, the other on public corruption.

The focus comes after the bribery convictions of former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. Turner was sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison after U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock blasted what he termed the former councilor’s “ludicrously perjurious testimony” at trial.

Coakley told the business leaders attending the Chamber breakfast: “If we cannot ensure the integrity of our markets and of our government, then most of our efforts to rebuild our economy, at this stage, are undermined.”

Besides Wilkerson and Turner, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi is also facing federal corruption charges, following criminal prosecutions against his two predecessors.

And Coakley herself is investigating allegations of fraudulent hiring practices within the state Probation Department, the Middlesex sheriff’s office and with Massachusetts Lottery advertising during last fall’s gubernatorial campaign by independent candidate Timothy Cahill.

Coakley has been accused of ignoring many corruption cases, especially involving her fellow Democrats who compose most of the state government, but she has said that in many cases, the federal government has better law enforcement tools to prosecute the crimes.

She also highlighted for her Chamber audience the more than 40 public corruption cases brought by her office – against members of both parties – and her focus on falsified training by EMTs seeking extra pay; false workers compensation and unemployment claims; and her successful recovery of more than $250 million during the past four years through Medicaid fraud prosecutions.

Coakley said both of the new units will be staffed with prosecutors trained in public corruption techniques, as well as the white-collar crime that will be targeted by the financial crimes unit.

The attorney general encouraged business leaders to cooperate with her efforts by turning in employees suspected of embezzlement, hacking and theft of company secrets.

“Sometimes it makes sense for you, in your businesses, to send a line to your employees, to send the message, that we do not take this lightly, we are not just going to write it off after we fire you – and, by the way, send you out in the world so you can go do it someplace else at another business,” she said.

Coakley kicked off her speech with a reference to the high-profile U.S. Senate race she lost a year ago to Republican Scott Brown. Noting she had been re-elected in November and sworn in last week, Coakley quipped that “twice now in the past year, the voters have said they want me to stay as attorney general.”

She also provoked murmurs as she repeatedly highlighted the good-citizenship theme highlighted in regular Citizens Bank television ads – as she stood in front of a Bank of America banner in recognition of its sponsorship of the breakfast.

Source: The Associated Press

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